Cleopatra and Pop Historiography

First off, a confession. I listen to NPR and I watch the Daily Show. I know- totally predictable grad student, right?

A few weeks ago a woman named Stacy Schiff was doing the rounds on these lofty-lefty shows to promote her new biography of Cleopatra called (unsurprisingly) Cleopatra: A Life. What’s most interesting about these interviews, however, is not her account of Cleopatra’s life, but the issues of historiography that Schiff brings into the public eye.

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The agency of the rhetor in kairotic moments

In my first post this semester I wrote about Kairos—addressing, in particular, whether or not celebrity status and/or pop culture can actually create it—yet I want to return to this topic one more time, in light of Leigh’s presentation this past week on kairos and blogging, as well as Chanon’s question which, if I remember correctly, was asking if there is a rhetorical theory or any work that has been done on the factors that are needed to create kairos. Leigh took the position, based off her research, that people do not have the ability to create kairos (which I found interesting considering what I wrote about in my first post).  I’m not sure I agree with the fact that we can’t create kairos.  But, even if we can’t, what are the implications of this? The most obvious one is that we then only have the ability to respond to kairotic moments. Yet this implication raises another (perhaps not so obvious) one: the need to answer the question regarding who is able (or perhaps more fit/better prepared/more competent/or even simply allowed) to respond to kairotic moments? To me it seems that, even if we don’t have the power to create kairos—if this is out of our control—there are certain people who more able than others to  respond to and take control of it:  for example, Lady Gaga in my first post. In the case of Gaga, I would say that her fan base (the millions upon millions of which there are) certainly gave her power to take control of—and use to her advantage—the kairotic moment in which she spoke about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. In other words, Gaga’s audience legitimated and gave her power, or more power anyway, to take political advantage of this right time to speak.

Although a far distant example from Gaga, I’m currently trying to think of the role that kairos played in the arenas in which Frederick Douglass spoke and what gave him the power to take such control of kairotic moments and use them to his advantage. As with Gaga, it seems like audience is huge for Douglass. For example, in The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he recounts how at the time that he gave a commencement address, it was not his decision to use his “carefully-studied and written address, full of learned quotations” that pulled off a well-received speech but rather the audience expectation that he talk more extemporaneously (RT 1083).  Even though Douglass, as he notes, usually depended more on his “unsystematized knowledge”, I find it interesting that the audience decides which is more effective—systematized of unsystematized knowledge. It is, in other words, audience expectations that controls and makes more powerful Douglass’s rhetoric in the kairotic moment (in the similar way to how audience control—their love or hate of her—legitimated and assigned power to Gaga’s actions within the kairotic moment in which she spoke out).

The point that I want to make out of all of this is that we may need to be more conscious of how and why someone is able to act, be recognized, and gain power within a kairotic moment. Is it the agency of the rhetor—herself—that is guiding her actions or is it the expectations of the audience. In many circumstances, I think audience expectations are a good thing and should be the driving factor of how we respond to kairos. For example, in my writing center work, a good consultation is one in which my actions within different kairtic moments during the session are driven by the audience that is the student writer—it is her expectations that set the parameters for how I interact with her and respond to her writing. In the classroom, I would like to say that the same is true most of the time—my actions are directed by the needs of the audience within kairotic moments.  Yet at same time, I am led to question how much agency the rhetors actually has within a kairotic moments: which actions are their’s alone and which ones are propelled by what seems to be the audience alone.

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Memory & Photosynth

A few months ago, I posted about ancient mnemonic practices and how they might be used to help us understand and cope with the vast amounts of information inundate our lives.  In this post, I’d like to focus on a related thread of memory, a thread entwined with mapping and collective consciousness.  Drawing on Sharon Crowley’s work on rhetorical memory, I’d like to suggest that technological shifts in the ways that we collect and recollect information, particularly through the interconnectivity provided by the internet, marks a significant significant shift in the way that we remember and construct reality.
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Inventing Broccoli Casserole

Chris Kimball's Fight Against Bad Recipes (from his blog)

In a recent episode of Splendid Table on NPR, Lynne Rossetto had as a guest the food critic Craig Goldwin. The topic of the discussion centered around the difficultly finding reliable web sources for cooking tips and recipes. Christopher Kimball, from America’s Test Kitchen, had recently written about the demise of Gourmet Magazine, a source for reliable recipes and cooking tips, pointing out that if one were to google for a broccoli casserole recipe, the results would be very disappointing:

Google “broccoli casserole” and make the first recipe you find. I guarantee it will be disappointing. The world needs fewer opinions and more thoughtful expertise — the kind that comes from real experience, the hard-won blood-on-the-floor kind. I like my reporters, my pilots, my pundits, my doctors, my teachers and my cooking instructors to have graduated from the school of hard knocks.

From Cook's Country


Goldwin took up Kimball’s challenge, choosing the very first result on Cooks.com, a kind of Wikipedia for cooks. Not only was the recipe inadequate, but also unsafe, telling the cook to throw the chicken and other ingredients together in the oven, not specifying whether or not the chicken was raw. Rossetto defended such sites, pointing out how in today’s world, cooks can actually talk to each other, and it is not Google’s job to vet information. Kimball wisely points out in response, that to write a recipe that effectively communicates to a reader is difficult, and cooks should rely on “edited” material — or what we might call “peer-reviewed”.

I want to propose that the problem here is not necessarily the burst of “opinion” overwhelming more expert forms of knowledge. Rather the problem is how our assumptions about print text are inappropriately carried over to Google. In her book outlining the “revolution of printing,” Elizabeth Eisenstein points out that print culture enabled cross-referencing between texts, more cross-cultural interchange, and “combinatory activity” that changed social and intellectual relationships (47, 49). One could say that the digital world has instituted similar shifts, and ways of reading print text do not match the new medium entirely. Print text did enable edited and peer-reviewed ways of formulating knowledge by “bringing many minds to bear on a single text” (56).

From BBC Radio

In other words, text became more like a permanent object, rather than constantly in flux (either orally or in less accurate forms of duplication). In fact, reading text as object has, in many ways, become our default mode, but this does not apply to the gushing stream of text that we call Google. It is likely that if we googled “broccoli casserole” today, a different list of recipes would come up, and the one we’ve already seen has been changed. As a cook myself, I do not use google to get a recipe, I use google to view many recipes around which I can invent my own. I want to see how other broccoli casserole recipes have been done, using google as a space to exercise my own “combinatory activity.” I’m going to know that my chicken needs to be cooked either through dialogue with other recipes or more basic and expert sources that I have on hand. One might say that print culture created the illusion that invention happens internally and mystically, but with digital culture on the rise, invention is made visible through external means. Therefore, we should see these two types of texts interacting with each other as inventive tools, rather than merely forms of knowledge at odds with each other.

How far will you go for a good source?

I would like to use my experience researching a current project about Byzantine rhetoric in Late Antiquity as a more academic example. Googling “Byzantine rhetoric” is nearly useless, but by first building my own base of “expert knowledge” through scholars like George Kennedy and James Murphy, Google became an inventional space with which I could explore the various connections between specific people and topics of the Byzantine era. Much of the research that was necessary for my project lay several bibliographies deep. But as a scholar almost completely new to the Byzantine era, Google, along with sites like Wikipedia, were helpful in tentatively filling in gaps as I read. Obviously, I would not use these sources in a paper, but the internet became an inventional space, where I could test subjects, ideas, and other topics, creating a platform from which to spring into more in-depth research. As my first draft of this paper draws to a close, I have found a much coveted source through Google books. Wanting to read the works of Procopius of Gaza, I’ve been attempting to get a 19th century German translation, because there are no other translations in existence. I tried to order it through the library, but the book is “too big and too fragile,” so I would have to drive to Cincinnati to actually read the book. But with the new Google books for iPad, I downloaded the entire “large and fragile” book to my device. This, too me, is a definite advantage . . . but typing in Byzantine rhetoric, or even Procopius of Gaza, would never have brought me to this source. I only knew of the book through other scholarly sources. Even so, I may not have taken that “research path” if it were not for using Google as an inventive space. For me, Google and Academia work synergistically, each playing a specific role that can only be defined by invention. If a student (or a cook) has no notion of invention, then these roles are likely to slip out of sync and give you either a bad paper or a bad tummy ache..

It strikes me that this shift in technology demands the recovering of invention, not just in composition, but in all of life . . . yes, even cooking. I’m not really trying to take sides on the Wikipedia vs Expert fight. In a way, both Rossetto and Goldwin are right. Rather, in my experience, students and scholars need to learn how the two work together to produce knowledge. This is an important role of rhetoric, not just in the university, but in the “real world” of cooking, as well. Perhaps, then, the verb to google should mean to invent, rather than to search.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

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Writing Technologies

photo cred: geoandresearch on Flickr

My handwriting looks like a drunken 5-year-old’s whose arm is in a cast (the drunkenness and arm cast may or may not be related… I don’t know: I had nothing to do with it).

It’s downright undignified.  And I say that quite seriously: it is impossible for anyone (including myself) to look at my handwriting and feel even a modicum of dignity.
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A researching find!

Sorry for the blog spam, but I’m doing some additional primary research on Gertrude Buck, and I just happened upon these notes from 1910 folded up inside the book!

This is a page of notes on a lecture, presumably, on the topic of “The Value of Organized Play.” (Also folded up with this seems to be a receipt of some sort and a long list of potential tailors/clothiers?)

Just wanted to share, since we’re all a bit nerdy over here at RhetHistoria… :]

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Musings on my rhetorical roots, Jersey-style

Someday I might pull an Aristotle and try to categorize audiences like he does for young, middle-aged, and old men–but with geographical considerations, rather than age. I say this because, as most people know–or have guessed, I suppose–I’m a Jersey girl, born and raised, and I can tell you, without a doubt in my mind, that my “audience” back home is a hell of a lot different from the South-West Ohio “audience” I interact with daily.

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